The Bible-Belt Miseducation of Pregnant Teens

Contrary to the preachings of anti-abortion zealots, a teenage girl’s chances of getting pregnant before she’s ready may have more to do with her race, region and economic status than with her values or “self control.” According to new statistics from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), many teen pregnancies are clustered around the Bible Belt. Suddenly, fundamentalist Christian “chastity” doesn’t seem so hot at preserving a teen girl’s “delicate flower.”

The CDC reports that the rate of teen pregnancy—about 41.5 per thousand women between ages 15 and 19—fell in 2008. But the progress varied wildly in different corners of the country and across ethnic groups. While black and Latina teens had higher pregnancy rates overall, those rates rose highest in Southern states such as Alabama and Georgia. White teens had lower rates, but those similarly rose in the South and Southwest.

The figures recall another study from the department of reproductive irony. In a 2009 article in Reproductive Health, researchers linked the “religiosity” of a region to teen birth rates, suggesting that the more religious the surrounding community tends to be, the more likely that a girl there will have a baby before becoming an adult herself. After adjusting for social factors, including abortion rates, researchers speculated that “teens in more religious communities may be less likely to use contraception.” In contrast to family-values rhetoric, they said the results could indicate that …

… conservative religious communities in the U.S. are more successful in discouraging use of contraception among their teen community members than in discouraging sexual intercourse itself.

While the CDC’s data may affirm that theory, it also shows the complexity of gauging overlapping risks that lead to teen pregnancies. Whether you look at the data by region, race, income or education level, the takeaway is that girls need far more knowledge and power to make informed choices. This is especially true in communities of color, where teen pregnancy risks correlate strongly with social and economic barriers. On top of the usual pressures of adolescence, black and Latina girls often face structural problems like chronic poverty,  alienation from the medical system and a lack of affordable, culturally-competent education and health resources in their communities.

Many reproductive rights activists see the statistics as a subtle vindication of their argument that reality-based education is key to controlling teen pregnancy. Leslie Kantor of Planned Parenthood pointed out in a statement last week:

This new CDC report makes it crystal clear that the teen birthrate is lower in states that provide students with comprehensive, evidence-based sex education.

Comprehensive sex ed has been demonized as a pro-promiscuity brainchild of liberals. But several studies have shown that the right’s alternative—programs that promote only abstinence and privilege heterosexual marriage as the only acceptable basis for a sexual relationship—is ineffective at curbing teen sexuality. Some programs, fraught with medical misinformation and outmoded gender stereotypes, may actively mislead children about how best to protect themselves (yet many have absorbed gobs of federal funding in past years).

It boggles the mind that, in 2010, the most controversial issue in sex education is whether more accurate information is a bad thing. So the culture war rages on at the expense of young people in the nation’s classrooms, as they struggle to deal with the reality of teen sex in communities that refuse to.

Photo from Flickr user Polina Sergeeva from Creative Commons 2.0.


  1. Yes. I saw a friend of mine get pregnant BECAUSE she believed that parenting would be fun. Attending church regularly and even her picketing of abortion clinics did not convince this friend to be abstinent. She wanted to be pregnant.

  2. thats rely dumb. Im a teen mom and i strongly believe that race and religion have nothing to do with it. i guess it could be called the result of irresponsibility, but the second you hold your baby for the first time, your ready to take on anybody who has the nerve to call your child a "Mistake". I am a young mother. I am not an age, color, religion, or social-class. I was just a little girl who grew up too fast. Some people like to use the term "babies having babies" but I just call it "LIFE"

  3. When they mention discounting "social factors" in teen pregnancies, does this include early marriage? Cause I grew up in a very religious environment, and you'd have girls who were indeed abstinent until they got married, but they get married at 18 and don't use birth control, so HUGE numbers of pregnant 18- and 19-year-olds.

    @cerajena I'm guessing you didn't grow up in a very religious environment if you think religion has nothing to do with it, so I'll give you a couple reasons religious teenagers might be less inclined to use birth control: If your parents would get very angry at you if they found out you were having sex, would you want to risk them finding your condoms or birth control pills? Or what if you were taught that using birth control pills was the same as having an abortion which was as bad as murder, and therefore an unforgiveable sin (unlike premarital sex, which would leave "permanent scars" but could be forgiven?). And what about parents in a highly religious area who might pressure their local school boards into providing abstinence-only education (which does not cover proper use of birth control methods), or if that fails, choose to enroll their children in a private religious school or homeschool them instead? All of this results in a large number of teenagers and their parents who believe that although premarital sex is wrong, any kind of protected sex is morally the same as child murder. This isn't saying that kids of a certain race or religion are more likely to have sex, just that they're less likely to use contraception or use it properly.

  4. Teen pregnancy and the impact it has on a girl’s life is a reproductive rights issue I’m deeply concerned about. Anyone who has watched more than one segment of MTV’s “16 and Pregnant” and “Teen Mom” knows that girls who get pregnant as teenagers are affected in very negative ways, which include having to drop out of high school because they have no one else to take care of their baby.

    Personally, I think the problem of teen pregnancy/motherhood needs a lot more public discussion in more public forums. Relying on schools who may rely on basically useless forms of “sex education” like abstinence-only, as is being done in red states like Mississippi (thanks, Ms., for that additional article in the Winter 2013 issue), isn’t nearly enough to educate teen girls who aren’t pregnant yet how to prevent more unwanted teen pregnancies from happening. I’d love to see more exchanges of ideas on how teen pregnancies can be prevented even further, if there are any areas of Ms. where such ideas are exchanged. All I need is a link, and I’ll be there. 🙂

  5. Although these abstinence-only “sex ed” programs are quite useless in really educating teen girls how to prevent unwanted pregnancy from happening, there may be a positive and effective way to inform girls that avoiding sexual activity while in middle and high school is in their best interests. Using a different and more up-to-date term, like “sexfree” instead of the old-fashioned “abstinent,” could also be helpful.

    Here are ten reasons why it’s a good idea for girls to be sexfree:

    1. Girls have FREEDOM from the worry about getting pregnant.
    2. Girls have FREEDOM from worry about incurable STDs like herpes and fatal STDs like AIDS.
    3. Girls enjoy the FREEDOM to concentrate on school work and participate in all school activities.
    4. Girls enjoy the FREEDOM to get all homework assignments done and studying to maintain or improve grades.
    5. Girls keep their FREEDOM to participate in fun school activities and in learning programs for future jobs and careers.
    6. Girls keep their FREEDOM to graduate with their classmates and receive their high school diploma.
    7. Girls enjoy the FREEDOM to move on to college or vocational school with no restrictions. What they do after high school is entirely what they make of it.
    8. Girls keep their FREEDOM to complete a college or vocational program and receive a degree or certificate.
    9. Girls have the FREEDOM to look for and accept good jobs with higher salaries. They aren’t locked into low-wage or minimum-wage jobs with part-time schedules.
    10. Girls keep their FREEDOM to to get valuable job experience in a chosen career and take courses to learn more job skills.

    Once girls have a list of this kind, they can always add more good reasons to avoid sex while in school. At the very least, it gives girls something to think about.

  6. Sorry, I forgot to add that when using the term “sexfree,” it should be stressed to teens that it means being free FROM sex, not being free WITH it. My apologies for not including this in my previous post.

  7. The following “food for thought” message might help girls see the difference between the two lifestyles of being a free teenager and being a teen mom BEFORE they make the mistake of having sex and possibly ending up pregnant. It could be a very helpful public service ad for any on-the-ground teen pregnancy prevention volunteers who might be interested in using it, especially in the red states where only the “abstinence-only” approach to sex ed is allowed.

    – Keeping up grades, studying, doing homework
    – Participating in after-school activities
    – Going to school dances and parties
    – Relaxing during summer vacation
    – Having fun at the junior or senior prom
    – Graduating high school and attending after-graduation parties
    – Moving on to college or vocational school with no restrictions

    – Missing school, falling behind in classes
    – Getting up two or three times at night to feed a baby
    – Endless diaper changes, including stinky ones
    – Losing friends who don’t want to be around crying babies
    – Staying home with a crying baby while friends are out having fun
    – Missing high school graduation, or even having to drop out of school
    – Losing out on the dream job/career originally planned

    As a teenager who is happily NOT pregnant, which lifestyle do YOU want? Wouldn’t you rather have the first lifestyle instead of the second?

    You can keep Lifestyle #1 very easily, just by saying NO to any guy who pressures you to have sex. If your boyfriend says he’ll break up with you if you won’t have sex with him, don’t cave in. Break up with HIM instead.

    Keeping your freedom to BE a free teenage girl; there’s no better reason to say a very loud NO to sex to ANY guy who pressures you for it.

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